Nabisco's X-Rated Toy Scandal of 1971

No one at Nabisco’s corporate headquarters in New York City had any idea why members of the National Organization for Women were lined up outside. It was the fall of 1971, and the manufacturer best known for their Oreo and Chips Ahoy! snacks had not made any obviously sexist advertisements or taken any particular political stance. They sold cookies.

Then they read the signs: “Sick toys for children make for a sick society.”

That May, Nabisco had attempted to diversify by purchasing Aurora Company, the West Hempstead, New York model kit maker best known for their plastic kits of Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, and other horror film icons. The cheap plastic toys came in pieces and could be glued together and painted.

Unknown to Nabisco, Aurora had recently branched out and begun offering entire model kit dioramas. Instead of a single figure, consumers could buy detailed “sets” for their monsters to interact with. There was a guillotine, a razor-sharp pendulum, and a laboratory; a female protagonist, referred to in the copy as “the Victim,” was scantily-clad and ready to be dismembered, beheaded, or trapped in a spiked cage. Kids could also opt to have Vampirella, the top-heavy villain licensed from Warren Publishing, operate the winch and pulley while her plastic captive was shackled to a table.

Each kit also contained a comic, which instructed builders on how to assemble the torture scenes for maximum enjoyment. A narrator named Dr. Deadly seemed to opine on the appeal of the Victim once she was fully assembled. “Now that you’ve gotten her all together, I think I like the other way. In pieces … yesssss.”

In addition to Fig Newtons, Nabisco realized it had also been peddling tiny torture racks.

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Since its inception in 1952, Aurora had seen enormous success by exploring the horror genre. As television came into prominence and late movies screened the classic Universal monster films of the 1930s, a new generation of monster buffs had been nourished. Kits featuring Dracula, the Mummy, and even Godzilla were cheap to produce and sell. (Many models retailed for just 98 cents.) Having the consumer construct them with contact cement and model paint gave them a sense of accomplishment.

Aurora held contests for custom kits, highlighting winners in monster magazines. By the 1960s, they had started noticing that a lot of submissions revolved around expansive, morbid scenarios: a mad scientist’s laboratory, or an execution motif. To Aurora, it was a clear indication that their consumers wanted context for their models.

In 1964, the company unveiled its Chamber of Horrors Guillotine, which featured an unfortunate male sentenced to death via a chopping blade: once activated, his head could be retrieved from the basket, re-attached, and executed once again.

While the toy did have some precedent in 1700s France—a two-foot-tall guillotine was popular among children, some of whom used it to decapitate rodents—there was some minor furor from parents, and Aurora didn’t pursue the line.

Six years later, the company felt the cultural climate was ready for something more provocative: They began developing a line dubbed Monster Scenes. Using generic characters like the Victim, designers concocted elaborate scenarios that put the unfortunate captives in mortal peril.

One scenario had a mad scientist hovering over his captive with a tray full of hot coals and a set of tongs; another designed after Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum featured a swinging blade that would cleave the Victim in two. (Or at least nudge her side; once assembled, the toys didn’t easily come back apart.)

Aurora also pursued the license for Vampirella, a buxom vampire featured in James Warren’s horror periodicals: Warren sold a lot of Aurora kits via his mail order business, and a decision was made to include his character in the line rather than risk dissolving a partnership. Unpainted, she appeared to be virtually naked. Her counterpart, the Victim, sported hot pants and a halter top; a dress or flowing skirt was deemed impractical in order to have her fit on the torture rack.

In a big departure from previous kits, the Monster Scenes featured snap-on parts, the better to lure in consumers who were concerned over fumes from glue or contact cement. Once assembled, the characters could be placed in the Pain Cage, the Pain Parlor, and other disturbing scenarios.

Eager to trumpet their daring new line, Aurora’s marketing made the unfortunate choice of plastering each box with a stamp: “Rated ‘X’ for Excitement!” In an included comic book, Vampirella quells concern that someone might hear the Victim screaming by saying, “Don’t worry—this is New York. No one will help her.” (The gallows humor was later interpreted to be a reference to Kitty Genovese, a woman who was murdered in 1964 while apartment-dwellers nearby did nothing.)

Monster Scenes debuted at the Hobby Industry Association of America’s trade show in February 1971. Aurora hired model Nina Anderson to demonstrate the playsets, which attracted a stream of curious media members. Anderson, not particularly versed in the features, made a show of lopping off arms and legs before an angry Aurora executive told her the parts weren’t meant for that.

But Anderson had perfected her sales pitch. Of Vampirella, she told the Chicago Sun-Times that the busty character could be placed in a cage to “make her a go-go girl.”

Still, Aurora thought they had a hit. They even began to sketch out plans to license DC Comics's Lois Lane as a marquee “victim.”

Aurora began shipping the kits in March 1971. The characters—Vampirella, Doctor Deadly, the Victim, and Frankenstein—were $1.30, while the dioramas retailed for $2. There was no overestimating adolescent interest. By the fall, approximately 800,000 of the kits had been sold.

According to Aurora, the toys were paradoxically healthy for young consumers, allowing them to overcome fearful scenarios by having control over them. The company said it had consulted with psychiatrists prior to producing the torture scenes and found no objection.

But parents objected plenty. Letters came in to syndicated newspaper columns and to company headquarters. Kids wrote, too, but with requests for more sets to be added; they wanted gallows, a bed of nails, man-eating plants, and wheels of torture.

In her syndicated advice column, Ann Landers weighed in:

"For $1.99 you can own a doll named Vampirella. She comes equipped with a beaker of blood. If all this isn’t symptomatic of a warped society, I’d like to know what is."

Under fire by NOW and other activism groups, Nabisco was horrified to see headlines in The New York Times and other papers calling attention to the fact that one of its subsidiaries was peddling toys of victimized women in shackles.

Under corporate pressure, Aurora began toning down the line by identifying “the Victim” as Doctor Deadly’s daughter, a slightly less generic personification. They also began shipping Vampirella in red plastic instead of the neutral, skin-toned gray that led some critics to declare her nude out of the box. The Pendulum was deemed beyond hope and pulled entirely.

The furor over the toys reached television: Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In got a reaction from a joke about the torture toys. By December 1971, Nabisco had endured enough. After promising media they would cease production of the toys, they began to announce a recall of inventory already in stores. Treated like a contaminated product, Monster Scenes had lasted a paltry nine months.

As the 1970s wore on, Aurora returned to less controversial kits. Nabisco, flustered by the negative publicity, cut their development budget before selling the company to Monogram in 1977. Plans for a prehistoric line of kits and an extension of Monster Scenes were curtailed in the process.

The kits eventually became embraced by collectors, some of whom tried to recreate the store displays or make modifications to the existing kits. Aurora employees queried about the project expressed amazement that the toys had been perceived as sadomasochistic or misogynistic—they felt they were simply delivering the kind of exaggerated play premise that adolescent kids loved.

Decades later, toys like Electric Chair Marv—a character from Sin City who could be electrocuted on command—from McFarlane Toys would invite a similar level of controversy, though nothing that quite reached the levels of Aurora’s misstep. Their product had helped compel California legislature to pass a toy ban into law on July 1, 1972 prohibiting “torture toys” and replica grenades from being sold in the state.

As for the excess inventory: when Nabisco made the call to discontinue the kits, the remaining stock was hauled to Canada. The boxes removed the “Rated X” endorsement but kept another bit of fine print: “For ages 8 and up.”

Additional Sources:
Aurora Monster Scenes: The Most Controversial Toys of a Generation.

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PBS/Scholastic
10 Facts About Clifford the Big Red Dog
PBS/Scholastic
PBS/Scholastic

Whether you know him from his books, TV series, movies, or video games, Clifford is undoubtedly the world's best known Big Red Dog. (And to think that Norman Bridwell, Clifford's creator, was told he would never succeed.) Here are 10 things you might not know about one of the most popular children's book characters of all time, who was born 55 years ago.

1. NORMAN BRIDWELL WAS TOLD HE WAS NEVER GOING TO MAKE IT.

Norman Bridwell was told over and over again that he was never going to make it as an illustrator; his pictures of dogs were too ordinary and boring. One critic finally offered the helpful suggestion that Bridwell create a little story to go with his drawings of a little girl riding a pony-like dog, and that was all it took. Scholastic Books agreed to publish Clifford the Big Red Dog less than a month later.

2. CLIFFORD IS NAMED AFTER AN IMAGINARY FRIEND.

Clifford was named after an imaginary friend Bridwell's wife had when she was a child. At first Bridwell suggested "Tiny" as the big, red dog's name, but his wife told him that was too boring.

3. THE DOG IS RED FOR A VERY PRACTICAL REASON.

When asked how he decided on Clifford's signature color, Bridwell admitted that "it was red because I happened to have red paint on the drawing table that night."

4. BRIDWELL'S DAUGHTER INSPIRED A CHARACTER.

Emily Elizabeth Howard, the little girl who takes a liking to the runt of the litter in the first book, is named after Bridwell's own daughter, Emily Elizabeth Bridwell.

5. CLIFFORD IS A BIT OF A MUTT.

Ever wonder exactly what type of dog Clifford is? Well, he's said to have the characteristics of a giant Vizsla now, but the very first prototype—back when he was just the size of a pony instead of a house—was of a rather large bloodhound. Bridwell has said he took his inspiration from the behavior of all types of dogs.

6. BRIDWELL WAS ADAMANT THAT CLIFFORD BEHAVE LIKE A NORMAL DOG.

Don't ever expect to see titles like Clifford Goes to Outer Space or Clifford and the Dinosaurs. Bridwell, who passed away in 2014, firmly believed that although Clifford is a bit oversized, he still mostly does things normal dogs do.

7. CLIFFORD EXISTS IN 13 LANGUAGES.

More than 75 Clifford books have been published since the original first hit bookstores in 1963 and there are more than 129 million copies in print in 13 different languages.

8. SOME FAMOUS NAMES HAVE LENT THEIR VOICES TO THE CLIFFORD CARTOON.

If you've ever watched the Clifford cartoon on PBS, you've likely recognized some of the voices. John Ritter was the voice of Clifford; Kel Mitchell of Kenan and Kel voiced Clifford's buddy T-Bone; Cree Summers lent her vocals to another pal named Cleo (you've also heard her as Penny in Inspector Gadget and Elmyra in Tiny Toon Adventures); and Emily Elizabeth is played by voice actress Grey DeLisle who is also the McNulty Brothers in Rugrats and Queen Amidala in the Star Wars interactive series.

9. THERE'S A PREQUEL BOOK SERIES.

In 1985, Bridwell started writing Clifford the Small Red Puppy, where you can catch a glimpse of Clifford before he was able to catch cars in his mouth. Clifford's Puppy Days shows us what life with Clifford and Emily Elizabeth was like back when he was still the runt, before the family had to move to Birdwell Island to accommodate Clifford's gigantism. It was also made into a PBS series in 2003 called Clifford's Puppy Days.

10. PEOPLE LOVE CLIFFORD BECAUSE HE'S ALWAYS FORGIVEN.

Following Bridwell's death in 2014, Scholastic chairman, CEO, and president Dick Robinson issued a statement describing why Bridwell and his famous pup were so beloved:

“Norman Bridwell’s books about Clifford, childhood’s most lovable dog, could only have been written by a gentle man with a great sense of humor. Norman personified the values that we as parents and educators hope to communicate to our children—kindness, compassion, helpfulness, gratitude—through the Clifford stories which have been loved for more than 50 years.

The magic of the character and stories Norman created with Clifford is that children can see themselves in this big dog who tries very hard to be good, but is somewhat clumsy and always bumping into things and making mistakes. What comforts the reader is that Clifford is always forgiven by Emily Elizabeth, who loves him unconditionally."

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iStock
Country Time Is Paying Off Fines on Kids' Lemonade Stands
iStock
iStock

A summer staple has come under threat. “The Man” is cracking down on makeshift lemonade stands across the country and busting kids without business permits. Thankfully, one beverage maker is here to help.

As CNN reports, Country Time—known for its powdered lemonade mix—has started a legal fund to help pay off the fines and permit fees incurred by little lemonade hucksters. The company has vowed to cover fees of up to $300 for each business permit bought this year, as well as fines on lemonade stands that were shut down in 2017 and 2018.

The initiative, dubbed Legal-Ade, was reportedly inspired by an incident that occurred in Denver just last week in which two brothers who were selling lemonade for charity were forced to close down shop because they didn’t have a permit. In recent years, similar cases have been reported in Texas, Maryland, Iowa, Georgia, and more. Some fines have climbed as high as $500.

“When we saw these stories about lemonade stands being shut down for legal reasons, we thought it had to be an urban myth,” Adam Butler, an executive at Kraft Heinz, which owns Country Time, told CNN. “A very real response seemed the best way to shine a light on the issue."

The company posted a playful advertisement on YouTube showing a group of hard-nosed lawyers crossing their arms and cracking their knuckles behind a child’s lemonade stand. “Entrepreneurship? Good work habits? Good old-fashioned fun? Shut down because of old, arcane, but very real laws,” declares a voice in the video. “Tastes like justice,” one man in a suit says after downing his lemonade and crushing the plastic cup in one fist.

The company says it’s prepared to cover up to $60,000 in fees. To apply for some lemonade relief, head to Country Time’s website and upload a scanned copy of your child’s fine or permit receipt.

[h/t CNN]

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